“So how do you sustain interest in the listener with that kind of relentless music?”
Sondheim replied with a story about a visit to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he realized that Japanese art was the ultimate expression of the less-is-more aesthetic. He saw a three-paneled Japanese screen. “The first panel was absolutely blank,” he recalled. “The second panel was absolutely blank except for the end of a bird’s tail; and the third panel had the rest of the bird and a tree…Click! I thought: Ohhhhhhh, it’s all about less is more.”
For “Someone in a Tree,” he said, he used one chord and made “tiny little variations on it” for 60 bars, gradually building on it so the “audience never gets bored.” Then, he went on, “when you finally settle down to the chorus, and it finally hits the tonic chord, there’s that sense of, pheeeww! I think it’s terrific. So that’s what that is: It’s an attempt musically to echo the visual—and the literal—of Japanese art.”
Clearly dazzled, Horowitz brought up “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeny Todd. Sondheim, who has a residence on the east side of Manhattan, said he’d researched the birdcalls in the score by listening to birds in the woods near his home in Connecticut. But would Sondheim’s Connecticut wrens have been heard in Britain?
“Oh, Mark, no! There’s a limit to research.”